By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II
“God and St. George help us! There was never so evil a King in France as there is now, nor ever one who gave me such trouble!” ~ King Edward III in 1372
While it is always tempting to think of the Hundred Years War as a single, continuous, century-long conflict, historians like to remind us that the war was actually a three-phase affair including what have been dubbed the Edwardian War (after the English king, Edward), the Caroline War (after the French king, Charles V), and the Lancastrian War (named after the House of Lancaster, the rulers of the Kingdom of England). Our columns up to this point have mostly covered the first phase, the Edwardian War, which began with the onset of hostilities in 1337 and ended with the signing of Treaty of Brétigny in 1360.
In this column we tackle the second phase of that conflict (1369-89), the Caroline War. This phase is distinctive in that it saw the scope of the conflict between England and France become truly international – some of its most notable battles were fought far from the home territories of the two belligerents in places as far north as Scotland and Flanders and as far south as Castile and Portugal. It also witnessed the accession to the French throne of a new and inspired ruler, Charles V, who rallied the Kingdom of France to reverse the English successes of the previous phase – even though he ultimately failed to achieve a decisive victory over Edward. Lastly, it witnessed the curious failure of various English political and diplomatic stratagems that, in turn, undermined their overall war effort – turning the conflict into an unrewarding stalemate that generated immense political instability at home.
By way of background: In the immediate aftermath of the Edwardian War, the Valois regime in France was in utter shambles. English arms had destroyed the flower of France, slaying or taking hostage dozens of members of the nobility (including King John II himself), and had laid waste to such vast swathes of France that the Italian humanist Petrarch was moved to note in 1361 that entire regions of the kingdom once known for their agricultural bounty had been abandoned to nature, its inhabitants dead or reduced to penury. Adding to France’s woes, the Treaty of Brétigny ceded a number of important territories to the English crown.
Finally a ferocious peasant uprising, know today as the Jacquerie, exploded in 1358 around Paris in response to this multitude of grievances – in many ways foreshadowing the far more famous and equally violent revolution France would endure four centuries later. While the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by what remained of the French nobility, notably with the assistance of English and English-allied commanders who saw it as being as threatening to them as it was to the French, it nevertheless symbolized the dire straits France found itself in when Charles V was crowned king upon the death of his father in 1364.
The proximate cause of the war launched by the new King of France is to be found primarily in the efforts of Edward of Woodstock, better known as the Black Prince, eldest son and heir of Edward III of England, to restore Pedro the Cruel to the throne of Castile. For geopolitical reasons, Woodstock had invested considerable resources in the cause of Castilian King, seriously depleting his treasury in the process. When Pedro reneged on his pledge to reimburse the English prince, the latter had no option but to raise taxes in the Duchy of Aquitaine to pay for his Castilian stratagem. Predictably, the prince’s subjects in the Duchy bristled at the newly imposed taxes, and when their complaints went unheeded by the English authorities, they appealed to the French king, whom many claimed was the ultimate sovereign of Aquitaine.
In May 1369, King Charles summoned the Black Prince to appear before his court in Paris to answer these appeals. As the prince did not recognize Charles’ jurisdiction in this matter, or indeed any of the French king’s claims to sovereignty over Aquitaine, he naturally refused the summons. Charles then declared war on what he considered to be his contumacious vassal, using the pretext of Woodstock’s supposed act of treason to launch a campaign to regain the territories ceded to the English in the Treaty of Brétigny. Contrary to English expectations, Charles’ campaign was remarkably successful, and by the time of his death in 1380 the French king had recovered many of the lands lost to France during the Edwardian War.
These successes were codified in the Truce of Leulinghem, a twenty-seven year armistice agreed by the son of the Black Prince, King Richard II of England, and Charles V’s son and successor Charles VI, on 18 July 1389. While suspending hostilities on terms largely favorable to France – and inaugurating a thirteen-year long armistice (it ended prematurely in 1402), the longest period of sustained peace during the entire Hundred Years’ War – the agreement did not address the underlying issue of the sovereign status of the Duchy of Aquitaine, setting the stage for the final phase of the conflict, the Lancastrian War.
Charles V, known as “the Lame” by his enemies and “the Wise” by his more loyal subjects, did not at first glance seem like the sort of leader who could reverse his kingdom’s dire situation in the aftermath of Brétigny. Suffering from a lifelong physical deformity in his spine, he had a disfigured and hunched appearance and suffered from terrible chronic pain. However, what he lacked in physical strength, Charles more than made up for with his political and strategic genius. Charles very quickly realized that it was sheer folly to continue to challenge English tactical dominance head-on and gathered about him a collection of like-minded military professionals from across and beyond his domains, like the Breton Bertrand du Guesclin, the famed “Eagle of Brittany,” to execute a strategy of avoidance and harassment against rampaging English armies that would have made the Roman general Quintus Fabius – the third-century BC inventor of guerilla warfare tactics – proud.
Gradually, the English found their traditional advantages almost completely nullified as the French exploited their new strategy to the fullest, persistently harassing the English forces while denying the foe any opportunity to force a decisive engagement. Charles’ Fabian strategy of avoiding pitched battles in favor of wearing down the enemy through less direct means, coupled with the ageing Edward’s diminishing leadership abilities, allowed him to outmaneuver the English in Brittany, Flanders, Castile, and Navarre – either neutralizing English allies in those regions or actually turning a few (like the de Montfort Dukes of Brittany) actively against Edward.
While significant, however, the geopolitical payoffs of this strategy have often been exaggerated by military historians. While Charles did indeed redeem the honor of Valois France after the humiliations of Brétigny, and while he largely succeeded in turning the tide of the conflict in France’s favor, he did so in a manner that by its very nature precluded a decisive reversal of English fortunes. Charles’ adoption of a Fabian strategy may have succeeded in nullifying the tactical and operational advantages enjoyed by the English, but they did not result in the strategic defeat of Edward and his armies. As J. J. N. Palmer wrote, Charles “avoided the possibility of defeat, but at the cost of the chance of victory.” And although the English did indeed lose a great deal of the territory acquired under the Treaty of Brétigny, much of that territory had been only nominally in their hands to begin with. Moreover, the core English territories in France – including the important fortified enclaves of Gascony, Ponthieu, and Calais – remained beyond Charles’ grasp. Indeed, when the French king died in 1380 he left behind a realm somewhat better positioned geopolitically, but caught up in a grinding military stalemate in which neither side seemed able to gain a clear advantage over the other. This stalemate was a major factor leading to the expansion of the theatre of combat to many of the neighboring states of Latin Christendom, something we will explore in our next column.
Palmer, J. J. N. England, France, and Christendom 1377-1399. (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1972)
Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham
Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.
Top Image: Coronation of Charles V, King of France – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 2813 fol.439r